December 14, 2017
Discipline: Membership

Becky Chinn photo

Whether online or in the mail, the gift ladder is often one of the final items to be set before a campaign is launched. Or, in some cases, a gift ladder is the one thing that hasn’t been changed in years. But there is tested strategy behind how to encourage members to increase their donations over time.

It matters how your gift ladder is laid out, and what options you give prospective donors.

Here are seven strategies for building effective gift ladders:

1. Start small.
Unless you have a large enough file to test, your gift ladder should appear with the small number (or the last gift) first, and move to the large, going from left to right in the mail, and either left to right or top to bottom online.

2. Provide five or fewer choices. 
This includes a blank or “other” line. If your gift ladders range from $25 to $1,000 or more, and have many choices with the intention of giving each donor the one option that is right for them, you’re probably depressing your response. Too many choices encourage people to take no action.

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Manage digital buyers and agencies3. Always customize the ladder for active donors to their current giving.
The standard best practice is currently:  

last donation amount    1.5 x last donation amount     2 x last donation amount      other    

Using a static or pre-printed ladder risks downgrades, because your ladder is likely to begin at a level that is lower than what most donors actually gave. They won’t get the message that you know them, and that you encourage increased support.

4. Be mindful of starting too high in acquisition mail if there is no donor history.
Even if your average donation on-air sits around $100, and your average mail donation is somewhere around $50, the best results often come with gift ladders that begin around $29 – $35 and move up from there. Base sustainer rates of $5/month or $60 annually have encouraged stations to move their ladders higher in the mail, and often the response rate lowers. Remember that the key point to acquisition is to bring in as many new members as you can, not to get more revenue from fewer donors.

5. Your successful acquisition ladder is likely to perform better in lapsed mail than a renewal-type ladder based off past giving.
If you can test this at your own station, make this a priority. If you can’t, know that many stations already have, and employ a more acquisition-like ladder in lapsed mail.

6. Odd numbers can play well.
With the advent of sustainers, many stations lean towards gift ladders that are round, and easily divisible by 12 ($60, $120, $240, $360… $5, 10, $20, $30). Especially online, if you have the ability to A/B test your ladder, give some odd numbers a try, especially with your sustainer ladder. Consider testing levels like $7, $12, $19, $29 etc. Including some catchier, simple-sounding choices could encourage donors to opt themselves up.

6. Look around.
Open your own mail from other large organizations you support to learn what they’re doing with their gift ladders. And online, be sure to check out large social-service and cause-oriented organizations that have more donors than the largest public media organization, and, thus, more capacity to test and implement winning tests. Of course, be cautious in your assessment, because the appeal you receive may well be a test. That’s why keeping tabs often and over time is best.

7. Check the settings in your donor software.
Some applications have ask-string tables that generate the ask strings for you. If you use these, double check their accuracy.

Manage digital buyers and agencies

Becky Chinn photo